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Narco-Islands: Mexico Ends One Journey, Starts Another

Narco-Islands: Mexico Ends One Journey, Starts Another

In Mexico, the coasts and islands are left unprotected by the authorities, opening them up to drug trafficking interests. This is why an ex-governor can buy an island; why criminals can burn an entire island even while they use another to load and unload drugs and fuel.

Last April, Congress approved a law permitting the purchase of islands for Mexicans and foreigners using the type of broad, legal language that makes these properties hard to police. The Mexican drug traffickers know how to take advantage of legal loopholes, as well as the lack of personnel and resources on more than 240 islands up and down the Mexican coasts. Some locals, like those in Laguna de Tamiahua, in Veracruz, insist the drug traffickers also use this area to relax.

    This is the third of three reports on “Narco-Islands.” See original in Animal Politico here.

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From 2006 to 2012, the Navy conducted a total of 308,195 naval operations, in which 19,070 agents participated, patrolling 11,592 kilometers of coastline on the mainland and the country’s islands. They inspected 321,266 boats, seized 485 of them and arrested 1,511 people — 615 of who were not carrying IDs.

Although the figures appear to show success, the reality is different. The Navy admitted as much in a report it gave to the Anti-Corruption Commission recently.

“The sailors steal part of the seized drugs,” the report said. “They allow people involved in drug trafficking to escape or consent to illegal activities that affect the national maritime resources.” 

In fact, one document from the Intelligence of the Subsecretary for Federal Public Security revealed that drug traffickers consider “maritime routes the most secure.” narcoislasas graphic

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For years, municipal, state and federal authorities have not had the human resources or infrastructure to carry out their jobs. Raul Santos Galvan, a former vice-admiral of the Navy, said it is impossible to do the job with what the Navy has.

“Mexico is a country with hundreds of islands, and the navy carries out surveillance with the means at its disposal, but it is necessary to provide it with better equipment,” he said.

The drug traffickers have better intelligence gathering equipment and, if detected, can easily outmaneuver the authorities with their increasingly sophisticated and fast boats.

The fishing sector has been affected by the gradual restrictions imposed in the Gulf region intended to prevent drug trafficking at all costs. The constant operations and the military patrols searching all the ships have caused problems for the fishermen living in Tamiahua, Veracruz, where Mexico’s navy and army have imposed a ban on the collection of sea cucumbers, among other things.

Despite all of this, the lure of the Pacific region is irresistible for drug traffickers. The extensive coastline and lack of surveillance equipment makes it ideal not only for Central American cocaine, but also for the trafficking of pseudoephedrine and other ingredients for synthetic drugs, headed north.

In addition to avoiding the south and south-eastern routes, highly dangerous due to the presence of “tumbadores” — traffickers who steal shipments from other traffickers — and rival criminal groups, Mexican drug traffickers choose the Pacific for one reason: with islets, islands and virgin beaches, there are infinite places to hide. The Pacific coastline is three times as long as that of the Atlantic.

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The methods for moving drugs have evolved over time. Pedro Diaz Parada, alias “The Chief of Oaxaca,” for instance, used speed boats called “Barracudas.” In 1985, he was arrested and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Later traffickers stuffed fishing boats and their catch with product. In 2009, over a ton of Colombian cocaine was found inside 20 sharks.

These days, they use submarines. In Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, authorities stopped a submarine coming from Colombia with 22 tons of cocaine.

Faced with the extensive coastline that stretches from Guatemala to the United States, the navy has focused on guarding the coast in the state of Oaxaca, where the most seizures have taken place; the state of Guerrero, where local drug dealing is abundant; and maintains a base in the port city of Manzanillo, although with less speedboats and more Coast Guard vessels.

It is there, on the trip north that the price of the drugs multiply with each passing mile as the cocaine travels closer to the lucrative US market. And the islands are the stepping stones northwards.

*This is the third of three reports on “Narco-Islands” that was produced as part of a project by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in which InSight Crime has collaborated. See original in Animal Politico here. Additional reporting by Octavio Enriquez (Nicaragua).

  • Investigations
  • Mexico

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